Unlocking a city's potential

Thailand's art scene and creatives spaces can become key economic drivers

The Charoen Krung area was one of the venues chosen for Bangkok Design Week 2021. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

Five years ago, the Creative Economy Agency (CEA) developed Charoen Krung to be the first creative district in Bangkok. Before the old Charoen Krung could become an area of hip café, restaurants, bars and art galleries, people at CEA organised focus groups and listened to opinions of more than 500 local people in the community. To serve the community in accordance to their opinions, CEA decided to work on five projects -- recreating the public riverfront, developing abandoned shophouses, creating green pocket landscape, connecting local alleys and designing signage for walkable districts.

Pichit Virankabutra, deputy director of the CEA, said the Charoen Krung area has changed. Five years ago, areas around the agency's office building located in Charoen Krung were quiet without any restaurants and cafés. That's changed as many now line the area's streets.

"CEA organised Bangkok Design Week to promote the area by using art exhibitions, lighting installations, and long-standing restaurants and stores. As a result, the district has become another popular tourist attraction. Charoen Krung is a model that has been used to develop other creative districts. In the next five years, CEA has plans to develop 30 districts nationwide," said Pichit.

Charoen Krung is among the examples of neighbourhoods in the capital city that are now full of creative art spaces and cultural heritage such as religious institutions and long-standing stores, thanks to restoration and conservation initiatives. After all, incorporating creative art and cultural heritage into fast-growing cities is an essential element for sustainability because it means the art and cultural aspects are still nurtured and preserved for the next generation instead of being forgotten.

Pichit further explained that while creative art spaces are a junction for stakeholders, cultural heritage is something that carries value and meaning over a long period of time.

"Creative art spaces are not limited to only an exhibition area. Any space can be made to attract people and trigger the start of new businesses in the neighbourhood. Cultural heritage is something with value and meaning that has developed over decades and even centuries and it can have either functional or symbolic significance. Cultural heritage has developed through the ages and is resilient through both the rise and fall of society," said Pichit.

According to a Unesco report, the creative and cultural industry increases income for cities. People in Helsinki, Finland, earned 50% more, while in Beijing, China, residents saw a 10% rise in their incomes on average. In Berlin, Germany, 17% more people were hired for jobs in the creative industry. Without this industry, a district or a city will lose this added income.

Pichit gave an example of London. Without its museums such as the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and its cultural symbolic structures such as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, London will lose its identity.

"I cannot imagine London without museums. Each city has its distinctive identity because of its cultures, traditions, natural resources and local assets. These identities are factors that promote people to gather for recreational activities and drive other environmental undertakings that can affect the economy indirectly and directly. If there is no creative art space or cultural heritage space, cities cannot move forward creatively. Local people also will not develop their capacities to carry on their identities," said Pichit.

In developed countries, creative art spaces are included in the national strategic plan because people in these countries believe that art can help shape people's perspectives. These countries create laws and measures to protect these spaces.

"In many countries, art pieces raise questions in order to encourage people to think. Since people in developed countries already have their basic needs met, they turn to look for aesthetics. In Thailand, art spaces are wanted by limited groups of people, but businesses use art and creativity to create commercial spaces that appeal to people's sense of aesthetics in order to boost their businesses.

"Cultural heritage is a source for learning, passing on knowledge and then, development. If there no cultural heritage, what can people learn from and build on?" Pichit asked.

Also contributing to creative spaces and cultural heritage is the UOB Painting of the Year Competition, which started in 1982 in Singapore. The annual competition was extended to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in 2010 and has since cultivated and advanced the careers of many artists. It has enabled artists across Southeast Asia to share their works at regional and international art events.

Sanchai Apisaksirikul, managing director and country head of finance and corporate real estate services, UOB Thailand, said art helps to uplift the human spirit and unify people.

"During the pandemic, artists have helped to give comfort and strength to people around the world with their creativity and capability. Their works connect people on intellectual and emotional levels. Over the 40 years of the UOB Painting of the Year Competition, many artists from Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia have widened our world view, unlocked our imagination and fostered our deeper appreciation of culture and art. UOB Thailand remains committed to uncovering and to nurturing the next generation of artists in our contribution to social development," Sanchai said.

With the Covid-19 pandemic weakening global stability, people are trying to find ways to build sustainable cities. Creative art spaces and cultural heritage can be factors to make cities more sustainable. Organisations of creative art spaces and cultural heritages have to create programmes that can attract people and gain their interest.

"The most difficult part of a creative economy is to create a programme that can draw people to engage in activities. In today's digital age, people spend hours in front of screens and organisations have to find a way to attract viewers to engage with their activities either online or on site," Pichit said.

Also state agencies should help people realise how creative art spaces and cultural heritages can benefit them.

"Many new businesses in Charoen Krung were started by young generations who originally moved out from the area. They returned to their hometown after Charoen Krung became the first creative district. If people can earn income from creative art spaces and cultural heritage, people will open up to the idea of art spaces and cultural heritage," Pichit said.

Even as Thailand finds a way to protect and preserve cultural heritage, the country also saw many historical sites torn down. The 52-year-old cinema Scala is a recent case of a cultural heritage that was demolished.

"I believe that environment affects behaviour. Cultural heritage delivers energy that can influence our lives. The larger a cultural site is, the more its loss will affect people of that culture. Cultural sites stimulate conversations and become a landmark unique to the area. Local people and passersby gradually become attached to it through a period of time. The Scala demolition had negative effects in term of the significance of the area. If the new building could have kept some parts of Scala, that would have been interesting," Pichit said.

Building Sustainable Cities is a 13-part series that explores essential elements & insights on how individuals and businesses can take action to forge a cleaner, greener tomorrow in collaboration with UOB Thailand. You can view the whole series here

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